There's a disturbing new trend in country music: Producers are cutting out instrumental sections to make the songs fit certain broadcast formats.
In a recent article in Billboard, country superstar Brad Paisley explained that “on country radio, there's a tendency to edit out the guitar solos to save time.” Eric Church's musically adventurous “The Outsiders” is but one song affected by this new regimen. Sometimes, country music producers bowdlerize songs preemptively, before they even leave the studio. “Trans Am” by Thompson Square, for instance, fell victim to an in-studio trim.
A lifelong guitarist and music obsessive, even I feel tempted to switch the channel somewhere around minute nine of the triple-guitar finale in Lynyrd Skynyrd's “Freebird.” But guitar solos, from Bill Haley and the Comets to Jack White, are as integral to the American music scene as blue jeans are to the American fashion scene. Certainly they have a key place in country, a genre built on instrumental virtuosity. As country session musician and singer-songwriter Amanda Shires told me, “You can't really call it country music without instrumental breaks; it is a critical part of the tradition.”
Guitar solos in country are going the way of the dodo largely because of commercial pressure. Specifically, pressure to fit in more commercials. “It's sad that it's all about the money,” Shires said.
Maybe audiences are to blame too. Newcap Radio, a Calgary-based corporation, conducted research into listener behavior and found that attention spans are now shorter. People listening to music often fast-forward through a song or only listen to parts of it. One of its radio stations now shortens the average length of songs it plays to two minutes. Perhaps the Internet has made it more difficult for some to focus on anything longer than a cat video.
The temptation to cut out solos actually goes back decades. Blue Oyster Cult agreed to a radio edit of its hit “Don't Fear the Reaper.” (I've had long conversations with their producer about the difficulties of removing the guitar solo while preserving its last haunting note.) And Axl Rose threw one of his famous tantrums on behalf of his then-guitarist Slash when radio stations excised the pretty guitar bit between the verse and chorus of “Sweet Child of Mine.”
Country radio was supposed to be the last line of defense. Contemporary urban and pop formats are already mostly guitar-free; synthesizers do much of the heavy lifting. Maybe it's time for a “save the solo” campaign.
These changes hit many rank-and-file musicians where they live, namely Nashville. Keep in mind that guitar solos heard on country records are probably not played by the well-known stars, but by workaday musicians.
Most of these pickers are members of the American Federation of Musicians — an important union for recording artists big and small. Session musicians are paid for in-studio work, but, for them, getting airplay is a kind of currency: More people hearing their work increases demand for their services in the studio and on the road.
Just because something was popular once doesn't mean it should stay popular forever, or else I'd be writing about clarinet solos in the latest big band barnburner. But as someone who became a musician because of what I heard on the radio and who now goes to bat for artists' ability to reach audiences and earn a living, I want coming generations to have a similar opportunity to be inspired.
Talk to any guitarist from Nashville to Nantucket, and they'll prattle on about their guitar heroes. Chances are they heard their first jaw-dropping solo on the radio. In the 1950s, maybe it was the guitar break in “Rock Around the Clock.” More recently, it might have been Alan Jackson's “I Don't Even Know Your Name.” Regardless of the initial moment of inspiration, those who are talented and persistent may be able to have a career in music. But first they have to have that moment.
Casey Rae is the chief executive of the national nonprofit the Future of Music Coalition.